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Rhode Island Business Leaders Day

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Rhode Island Business Leaders Day
Hosted by Senator Jack Reed
Hart Senate Office Building
 9th Floor Conference Center
October 4, 2017

Thank you, Senator Reed, for inviting me to join you for the Rhode Island Business Leaders meeting here at the U.S. Capitol.  I think we all benefit from the exchange of information and ideas, so I was pleased to accept Senator Reed’s invitation. 

During my confirmation as Secretary of Transportation, I pledged to visit 27 states.  I haven’t quite gotten down the full list yet, but I have made some progress.  It has been very helpful to visit with people from around the country – state and local officials, and business and community leaders like you – and to learn about how transportation affects their towns, stores, factories, and workers.

Sometimes it takes something like a hurricane that destroys all of the infrastructure to fully appreciate how critical it is to have good roads, rail lines, airports, and harbors to move people and goods from place to place.  We will be working with Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands to help them repair their roads and bridges in the aftermath of several of the worst hurricanes and flooding in history. 

But even without a major disaster, the United States is falling behind in infrastructure.  Nationwide, our highways, bridges, tunnels, and ports need repair and upgrades, and we have read that Rhode Island is making a special effort to tackle its infrastructure needs. 

We also need more airport capacity, and we need 21st century technology in our air traffic control towers. 

Would you believe that many airports in the U.S. are still using ground based radar?   This is like using dial-up internet – it still gets you online, but it cannot operate at the speed of fiber optics or high speed cable.  It is not your imagination that flights seem to be taking longer.  And who has not had the experience of sitting on the tarmac waiting for your flight to get clearance from the tower? 

We have a very safe air traffic control system, and our controllers are the best, but it is getting slower out of necessity, because the old technology cannot handle the increased demand for air travel.  We are sacrificing efficiency for safety, which is the right thing to do, but we should be able to have both.

The Administration has proposed a self-financing nongovernmental entity with an independent, nongovernmental board of directors representing all the stakeholders – a cooperative – to handle air traffic control operations, leaving safety and oversight to the FAA.  It is believed that this framework would not only relieve the FAA from conducting oversight on itself, but it would disentangle air traffic control operations from a big federal bureaucracy that often seems to resist change.   When I was Deputy Secretary of Transportation almost 30 years ago, upgrading our air traffic control capabilities was an issue.  In the 1990s, President Clinton urged attention to the aging of air traffic control technologies.  Unfortunately, we haven’t progressed much.

There is ongoing debate about this proposal and whether this is the best way to get America’s air traffic control system into the 21st century.  But one thing we should all agree on is that we can’t wait another 30 years to make these improvements. 

Other transportation infrastructure is critical for commerce.  People need to get to work; trucks and railroads need to deliver both inputs and finished products; cargo ships need to dock at multi-modal ports. 

The good news is that everyone seems agreed on the need for legislation on infrastructure.  The Administration has been working on principles for a major initiative.  $200 billion in direct federal dollars would provide seed money to jump start $1 trillion investment over ten years in infrastructure projects of every kind all over America. 

We are also aware of other proposals percolating in Congress for infrastructure.   I hope that we can all work together to achieve good legislation that will benefit all parts of the country – large states and small, urban and rural, from Portland to Providence.  We need legislation that will address a wide variety of infrastructure needs, including transportation, water and sewer projects, agriculture, energy, and broadband.

We need to look at creative ways to finance infrastructure projects.  Partnerships with the private sector are just one way of leveraging resources.  Such partnerships are already making a difference in getting projects off the ground.  To name just three examples --

All Aboard Florida is the nation’s first privately owned and operated intercity rail system in decades.  It is building a rail line that will eventually operate from Miami to Orlando.  They are developing the stations around mixed use retail and office space.

The Maryland transit project, known as the Purple Line, is being built with a significant percentage of private sector money.

In Virginia, the Dulles Greenway is 14 miles of privately owned and maintained highway that connects the town of Leesburg with Dulles Airport.  It cut the commute time from Leesburg to Dulles in half and relieved congestion on two other state roads.

It is true that not every project is a good candidate for a public-private partnership, or P3.  But, P3s can be another tool in the financial toolbox for states and local governments seeking to build infrastructure. 

Another thing we should be easing is federal permitting. 

This summer I visited Alaska, where the state and community leaders have wanted to build a new road around a scenic area.  The current two lane highway cannot handle all the traffic; it gets congested; even emergency vehicles have a tough time getting through.   This summer, DOT entered into an agreement with the State of Alaska for the state to conduct its own environmental reviews.  The state reviews would have to meet the federal standard, but they could be carried out so much faster.  On this project, Alaska has already waited 35 years!  Of course, not every project has endured a 35-year permitting marathon; some projects just sprinted through in 10 or 15 years! 

One state spent $29 million just to complete its environmental impact statement.  Another state accumulated 150,000 pages in administrative filings.

We all want to protect the environment, and no one is suggesting that we blithely ignore all of our environmental protections.  But, some of the requirements have been layered on over the years, and the process has become cumbersome, lengthy, and expensive.  States and local governments can spend millions of dollars just to get through the permitting process.

The Department begun to identify and implement needed changes in the permitting and approval process.   Let me name just a few of the changes we have already implemented.

We have sent to the Federal Register a proposed regulatory change that will harmonize the Federal Railroad Administration’s environmental review and historic preservation requirements with the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. This will ensure that multi-modal projects have to follow only one process, rather than multiple agency processes.  In addition, it will exempt most concrete and steel bridges built after 1945 from historic preservation review.  I’m sure Senator Reed will join me in the view that anything built during our lifetimes is not historic!

In addition, the Department issued new guidance regarding the application of categorical exclusions for multi-modal projects.  One DOT agency can now use the categorical exclusions of another DOT agency for these projects.  This change will expedite the environmental review process so infrastructure can be delivered more quickly.

We hope that these changes will assist Rhode Island and other states to build new infrastructure faster.  Saving time – years – in the permitting process will also save money not only in compliance costs, but also in construction costs as contracts will not lapse before the actual digging can begin.

We are going to keep working to identify other changes that would be prudent and beneficial, so we encourage you to share your suggestions for regulatory changes and permit streamlining with us. 

As we all know, infrastructure is an indispensable component for economic vitality and growth.   We need to move forward on a comprehensive infrastructure initiative, one that includes both financial assistance and regulatory reforms, and we will look forward to working with Senator Reed on this effort.

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Updated: Thursday, October 5, 2017
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